The greatest poet of the Sixth Form
Turned out to be a fraud.
- Kaiser Chiefs
His father sends him care packages of caviar.
Jez has never liked caviar, though when he’s at home he chokes it down with the biggest grin he can manage because his father is all about the when we’re in business we’ll eat caviar and watch the rest of the world worship our magnificence, only expressed in more careful terms because economics isn’t show business, after all.
He doesn’t want to bin the caviar because it seems like kind of a waste, but on the other hand he can’t hand it out to his friends – having random tins of stuff rarely found outside the Harrods Food Court doesn’t really fit in with the I’m an ordinary person, really thing he’s attempting to coordinate – and he doesn’t want cupboards full of food he will never eat.
So he gets rid of it, feeling guilty, and sends his father one more thank you so much email. Praying to God that he won’t suddenly get a delivery of fresh oysters.
“Ok, ugly truth time,” BB says.
“We did the ugly truth thing,” Jez protests, trying to work out where his feet have got to. He thinks he may be a little bit drunk. Or, you know, plastered. “Remember? I got outed as a filthy-rich Capitalist scumbag and my dad disowned me.” He wrinkles his nose slightly. “Best birthday ever.”
BB smacks his shoulder slightly. “Not that kind of ugly truth. Just, we’ve got a lot of your actual life to fill in. So go on. Tell us something we don’t know about you.”
Jez is tempted to point out that he could write about eight books on Things His Friends Don’t Know About Him, but that’s avoiding the question and he can’t help wondering just how many get-out-of-jail-free cards he’s been allotted.
“What do you want to know?” he asks.
Lola blinks at them with smudged mascara. “Are we playing Truth Or Dare?” she squeaks eagerly. “I’m so good at that! Like, this one time, I actually ran down-”
“I think this is just a special game to torment Jez,” Danny interrupts brightly. Lauren appears to be asleep on his shoulder; maybe they don’t get horribly drunk on cheap booze in the Middle Of Nowhere, Jez muses. What do they do with their time?
“Something we can blackmail you with later,” Claudine tells Jez, with a grin. At least she’s upfront about it.
Jez isn’t entirely sure what they’ve been drinking tonight, except that there was a lot of it and his brain now feels clogged and sticky.
“I lost my virginity at the Ritz,” he offers, and enjoys everyone staring at him at astonishment.
“TMI,” Claudine mutters, flicking a dismissive hand at him. Lola is giggling.
“Seriously?” she asks.
“I was fifteen. I had one of my dad’s credit cards. We ordered champagne afterwards and drank it in bathrobes and the whole thing probably cost more than a term of tuition.”
BB was probably right when he called him a Spoiled Little Rich Boy.
Danny tips his head sleepily. “Was she pretty?” he asks.
Jez tries to give him a withering look but isn’t together enough to manage it.
“She was a guy,” he points out. “I told you guys that one already, I’m sure I did.”
He reaches for his glass, and takes another mouthful.
“Well?” he asks.
“I don’t think you should tell that one on the school radio, mate,” BB says, but at least he’s smiling.
Lauren was all about the Supportive Coffee thing, which meant a lot of sitting about in Starbucks while she nodded sympathetically and then quizzed him on Shakespeare. Jez is good at Shakespeare; all that private education turned out to be useful for something after all.
“I didn’t have a childhood riddled with abuse,” Jez insisted, over peppermint lattés and Hamlet. “I’m not that person.”
Lauren’s notes had incest! scrawled in biro all over them, and she’d talked him into splitting a huge chocolate muffin; her expression plainly said Hamlet has daddy issues and so do you, and Hamlet dealt with them by killing people so let’s talk about it before you go on some kind of psycho murder spree. Jez felt like pointing out that he was seventeen and, ok, was looking for a job in the performing arts but wasn’t melodramatic enough to go buy a sword and have fun with it. But Lauren probably knew that anyway and she’d paid for the coffee so he humoured her.
“Until, you know, this, he’s always been pretty supportive,” he said.
Lauren’s expression was one of polite incredulity.
“No, really,” he continued. “I mean, I outed myself about a week after I was fourteen; obviously it was a shock but he’s never said anything negative. I used to bring boyfriends home and everything.”
Lauren turned her biro over in her fingers; it was patterned with little smiley faces and Jez felt slightly comforted.
“You being gay didn’t get in the way of his dream,” Lauren pointed out shrewdly.
So his dad had only ever been supportive up to a point. Tell him something he didn’t know.
Jez groaned, dropping his head to the table. “I’m not having this conversation again,” he complained. He raised his head to find Lauren looking slightly apologetic. “C’mon, let’s talk about how Hamlet totally wants to shag his mother.”
There’s no way he’s going to be able to keep the flat, so everyone comes over to help him pack up stuff in boxes.
“You’ve lived here all this time and you never invited us over for parties?” Claudine is pouting, swanning through the rooms as though imagining what it would be like to live here. Jez could tell her that it’s kind of lonely and that the upper class are well-meaning but often irritating, but he thinks it would be a bit cruel to shatter her bubble so very thoroughly, especially since Danny is still determinedly ignoring her, ahem, charms.
“Totally rat-infested,” BB says in an undertone, and Jez turns to look at him anxiously, worried they’re going to end up having another argument. He can’t do it again, he just can’t. But BB is grinning, teasing him, and Jez is more relieved than he’s going to admit to. “Mould climbing up the walls and everything.”
Jez smirks. “Mould of the mind,” he replies.
BB rolls his eyes. “That’s either kind of poetic or the worse excuse ever,” he says.
“Probably the second one,” Jez admits.
BB bumps him with his shoulder and Jez bumps back and is momentarily reminded of That Thing He Doesn’t Even Let Himself Think About, but is mercifully distracted by Danny throwing a roll of duct tape at his head.
“We didn’t come here to be your minions,” he calls cheerfully, “Pull your weight.”
An excited shrieking tells Jez that Claudine and Lola have found his wardrobe, and he’d better get in there before they do something to the clothes that will prevent him selling most of them on ebay.
He’s got a few more suits than is at all normal, but then his dad did think he was off to study Economics and when Jez went to all the effort to fake up coursework and things he decided he might as well fake the clothes too.
Claudine is holding a Ben Sherman shirt up against herself. “I could get it taken in at the waist,” she explains, “Shirt dresses are so in this season.”
Jez gently but firmly takes the hanger from her and throws it onto his bed, staring a pile he’s going to label Will Probably Sell On ebay.
“Tell you what, girls,” he says, as Lola continues sifting through his jackets, cooing over the labels, “Take your pick of my cosmetics, ok?”
Lola immediately hurries off to find his bathroom, while Claudine raises an eyebrow.
“I have a lot of cosmetics,” Jez reminds her.
She smiles at him. “It’s a pity your dad disowned you before he could buy us all houses,” she says, but in a gentle way that’s very close to being sympathetic.
“Your empathy is probably one of your best features,” Jez informs her.
Claudine pats his cheek. “You know you love me,” she informs him before clicking off after Lola.
Jez is about to call her up on quoting Gossip Girl and then realises that he knows that’s what she’s doing.
“I’m so gay,” he groans quietly, sitting down on his bed, staring at the unreasonably large wardrobe and wondering how the hell he’s going to sort all this out. Maybe if he simplifies it all down to things in boxes he can stop thinking about the fact he apparently doesn’t have a father right now and he also doesn’t have any money and his world is shrinking in front of him.
“If you were hoping to shock us with more revelations that one’s not going to work,” BB tells him cheerfully, walking in carrying a couple of large boxes. He dumps them on the floor. “Come on, you get to keep some of your disgustingly expensive clothes.”
“Yeah, before you have to start shopping at Primark like the rest of us!” Lauren calls through the open door. Jez isn’t entirely sure he should have let her and Danny loose on his CD collection, but he thinks he trusts them.
He starts folding his favourite shirts, waistcoats, tank tops and t-shirts into boxes, being ruthless with himself because every penny counts now. A few tracksuit bottoms and shorts and vests for dance classes, other things piled up on his bed. If he treats it all as a system it’s a little less traumatic.
“How much were these?” BB asks, holding up a pair of jeans.
“You really don’t want to know,” Jez replies, dumping an armful of shirts he’s never worn on his bed.
BB stares at him until he relents and tells him.
“Bloody hell,” BB mutters.
“Told you,” Jez replies, picking up another t-shirt. He likes it, but it is weirdly tight in places, so maybe…
“Keep that one,” BB says lightly, not looking directly at him. “It looks good on you.”
Jez could choose to comment on that, but decides not to, instead folding it and dropping it quickly into a box. At that moment, Danny and Lauren start bickering over his classical music collection, and Jez hurries back into the living room to stop them getting rid of the score from Manon.
He won’t admit to being relieved.
“Shakespeare is romantic,” Jez protests into the microphone. “I mean, okay, he’s a bit frilly in places but believe me, anyone is going to prefer ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ over hey luv, you wanna have a drink sometime?”
“Shakespeare just isn’t relevant now,” BB counters. “No one knows what the hell he was talking about, some things just have to come in your own language.”
Their knees are pressed casually together under the desk, like usual, but it’s more distracting than it normally is and Jez hates himself for it.
“Spoken like someone who’s never had roses on Valentine’s day with a sonnet attached to them,” Jez replies without thinking, and then mentally kicks himself because he doesn’t want to remember how that relationship ended.
BB is frowning at him. “Seriously?”
“He called himself a romantic,” Jez shrugs, and then remembers their listeners can’t see the shrug. “And it was. Romantic, I mean.” You’re babbling, his brain helpfully informs him. “So, you know, Shakespeare is still relevant and romantic and makes girls – and me, apparently – melt. So, guys, give it a go.” BB is still looking at him and doesn’t seem inclined to Say Things, so Jez coughs slightly and adds: “And now, some music.”
He lets out a very long breath once he’s sure no one can hear him. Things are awkward and he doesn’t know why they’re awkward and this is all stupid.
“You ok?” he asks BB carefully.
“Yeah.” BB shakes his head slightly. “I’m gonna grab a drink while the song’s on, you want anything?”
Something has crept into their peaceful sessions in the radio booth, babbling inanely and winding each other up, and Jez doesn’t know what it is but it’s got to get fixed because he can’t face losing anything else.
Lola’s all arms and legs, which is perfect for ballet, and Lauren is doing her best but frowning a little because she still isn’t all that fond of the stupid arm waving movements as she calls them.
“I don’t feel like a swan,” she complains, twirling across the studio.
“You’re actually starting to look like one,” Jez replies, “So stop bitching.”
Lola twirls prettily but misjudges something and ends up on the floor, giggling. Jez isn’t sure how he came to offer the girls a little extra help with ballet, but he’s sort of glad he did; it’s peaceful here, the pressure taken right off.
“Ballet’s all about control, isn’t it?” she says, as Jez pulls her back up to her feet. “Is that why you like it?”
Stop the presses; Lola kind of has a point, Jez thinks, not entirely unkindly, but manages a smile.
“It doesn’t make me dislike it,” he replies, aware Lauren is giving him a calculating look on the other side of the studio.
“You like control,” Lauren tells him, abandoning the pointy-toed ballet walk in favour of just hurrying back across to him and Lola. “You like having everything in its little box.” She’s smiling, to take the sting out of the words.
“Well, right now I don’t have any control at all,” Jez replies lightly, “And everything I own is in boxes.”
The girls stare uncertainly at him, apparently with no idea what to say.
“I bloody love ballet,” Jez continues, unable to stop a grin spreading across his face. “So come on, my little swans.”
He thinks Lauren mutters that she’s nobody’s little swan, but she and Lola return to their places and resume dancing, and Jez allows himself to feel a little proud.
“Your dad thought I was your boyfriend.”
BB is staring at his trainers; they’re alone in the classroom, supposedly still packing up their books after music theory.
Jez stares. And opens his mouth. And closes it. And stares some more. “You can’t ambush someone with something like that!” he gasps at last.
BB shuffles his feet slightly and doesn’t look up. Jez resists the urge to think something like Oh God, what now? Have I not suffered enough, really? Since BB doesn’t seem to want to come out with any more words, Jez realises he’s going to have to be the one to say reasonable things and try to salvage this.
“Well, you were wearing pink,” he says reasonably. And doesn’t add: and acted like someone who’d been dumped all meal, and then snuck off to play pool with my dad like you wanted to get on his good side, because he gets the feeling there are some sentences friendships don’t come back from and that one could be one of those.
BB’s head snaps up. “Are you saying-”
“My dad is reasonably literal minded,” Jez interrupts. “You wear pink, you’re gay. Also you’re a guy, and Danny and Lauren are sickening in their cuteness so obviously they’re together, and I suppose he thought maybe I’d found a boyfriend in London.”
BB smiles a little. “So you’re still…”
“Tragically single, yes,” Jez replies. And decides not to think about that being a slightly strange question for BB to ask because that all relates to That Thing He Doesn’t Even Let Himself Think About. “I told you, I’m not going to lie to you guys anymore, I really would have mentioned if I’d found someone gorgeous who was willing to put up with me.” He inserts enough of a smile into the words to make them sound normal and not at all like his brain has completely and utterly frozen.
“I just thought maybe you wouldn’t, ‘cause…”
It would be hilarious, Jez decides, how awkward BB is, if it weren’t for That Thing He Doesn’t Even Let Himself Think About, which just makes this weird and uncomfortable.
“I was always pretty certain you guys were ok with The Gay,” he says carefully. “If I thought you weren’t ok with it I probably would have found other friends. You know? I thought it was just the secretly-being-filthy-rich thing you were all pissed off about. And also the fact that my name is Jeremy. So now would be the time to tell me if-”
“No,” BB says quickly. “No, I’m fine with it.”
This is a stupid conversation to be having and Jez has the feeling something is going on here that he’s not aware of and really the bell went ages ago.
“Come on,” he says, “We should go to lunch.”
His first boyfriend, when he was fourteen, was from school and they were both ridiculously pretty and blonde together and both came top in Latin that term, which seemed like some kind of special sign then. They broke up over the summer, when Jez got over-involved in an am dram production and slightly forgot about his other commitments. The next school year, when they were all taller from the growth spurt, they didn’t even look at each other in classes, and it seemed weird how three months before they’d held hands in his garden and kissed under the stars and now it was like none of that had ever happened.
Said boy has a girlfriend now and is practically engaged and Jez is kind of relieved to be at Britannia High where he doesn’t have to walk past the ghosts of his old conquests in the corridors (since it took a while to properly get the hang of dating outside of the school environment).
“We should get you a boyfriend!” Lauren announces eagerly over lunch.
“Yeah!” Lola adds. “Oh My God, maybe we could even get you a famous one!”
Jez charitably doesn’t say I will kick you both if you don’t Shut Up, instead saying: “Ooh, yes, let’s try and track someone down who can carry all my poor-little-rich-boy baggage. That sounds like hours of fun.”
Danny laughs, but then he has a girlfriend and is practically sitting on top of her right now so he doesn’t get to have an opinion. “You just seem lonely, Jez,” he says carefully, diplomatic as always.
“I’m fine,” Jez replies in a carefully steady voice. “I’ve got you guys, I don’t need anything else on my plate right now.”
He notes that BB says absolutely nothing throughout this whole thing, and tries to work out whether that’s good or bad.
They spend the next radio show indulging in some thinly-veiled Lola teasing, listing the ten quickest ways to get someone to dump you (BB implies that this is so you can then go out with their best mate, but Jez decides not to investigate this, at least, not without some kind of alcohol being present) and arguing over whether Tchaikovsky is awesome or kind of a twat (only BB doesn’t say twat ‘cause, you know, censorship and everything). It’s normal and natural and Jez is once again not thinking about the large amount of Knee Contact under the table because that can lead nowhere good.
Except that apparently, since the world went to hell, he hasn’t been able to keep his mind away from the bad, wrong thoughts that he has not been allowing himself to have because, you know, BB is his friend and also? Straight. And Jez has been hurt enough for the next few months, thank you very much. He’s quite happy just to get on with school and dancing and selling off his possessions and trying to find a job, without trying to cope with That Thing He Doesn’t Even Let Himself Think About rearing its stupid ugly head and making things too complicated. Because, really, he has just about all the complicated he can handle right now.
BB gives him a cheerfully casual one-armed hug on his way out, a mutter of later. Jez stands very still and does some breathing and realises that this has really become sort of a problem.
London is all lights and noise and borderline rude anonymity and that’s awesome. Jez loves it, loves the dirt and the people who shove past you and the fact there’s a Starbucks wherever you turn. It’s the kind of city you can be you in because the city really and truly and honestly doesn’t care.
They share chips in Trafalgar Square; pigeons flutter about in the encroaching dark and people hurry past to Leicester Square and the Strand and Covent Garden and the promises of a great Friday Night. Jez is ok with BB and chips, though; they haven’t hung out as friends since everything fell apart and an easy shred of his old life is something nice to cling to.
“The Lion King,” BB guesses, as a mother and two children hurry past, dressed up just enough to be going to a theatre.
“Nope.” Jez grins. “Dad isn’t with them. They’re going to see Joseph; the kids will like the songs and the mum wants to perv over Lee Meade in a loincloth for two hours.”
BB laughs. “Did you do that?” he asks.
Jez could feign dignity, he really could. “Front row seats,” he admits sheepishly. “I have no shame.”
A couple of women walk past, already singing something by Abba.
“Mamma Mia!” Jez and BB say together, and start laughing.
It’s nice, just sitting on the edge of the fountain and watching the gridlocked traffic edge forward on three edges of the square, as the pigeons hop ever closer in the hope they will share their chips.
“Sorry guys,” Jez says, “I’m flat broke. I need every chip.”
BB looks at him. “If you’re that tight for money-”
Jez shakes his head, smiling. “No, it’s fine. Really. But thanks.”
He leans his head against BB’s shoulder, crumpling the now-empty paper up between his hands. The pigeons, realising their potential meal has gone, start flapping off to find other people to harass, but they’ll be back. They always are.
“I was angry with you for ages,” BB admits. “Not on the surface, but… I was so angry.”
“There’s only so many times I can say I’m sorry,” Jez tells him.
“I know.” BB sighs, and this close it ruffles Jez’s hair a little. “It’s ok, I’m not angry any more. I mean, I get it. I do. I just hate that you lied, that you made yourself into a different person.”
“It’s easier to get people to like you when they’re not wondering whether you’ll buy them an island in the Pacific somewhere,” Jez points out. “And no, before you ask: I do not, and have never, owned an island of any description. Except a Tracy Island playset when I was a kid and Thunderbirds made a comeback.”
BB laughs softly, shifting so Jez has to sit up again. “People seriously only liked you ‘cause they thought you were going to buy them things?”
Jez shrugs. He doesn’t particularly want to get into this, but he will. “Not all people. But yeah, people.”
“That’s… that’s shit,” BB says.
Jez looks down at his hands. “It happens. But I don’t have to worry about it any more, I suppose.”
He risks a glance at BB, who is looking at him intently. “People will like you whether you’ve got money or not, Jez,” he says quietly.
And then, because apparently sometimes clichés can happen and it’s somehow that’s ok, he leans in, lips brushing softly over Jez’s.
“Oh My God,” Jez says carefully, “We really do go to a school for the Performing Arts, don’t we?”
BB looks slightly less nervous, and more amused. He smiles. “This ok? I mean, I know it’s not the Ritz, and it’s not champagne, or roses or Shakespeare…”
“That used to be me,” Jez shrugs. “I think I’ve got to the point where I’ll put out for a Pot Noodle.” He glances down. “Or chips. Chips are pretty good.”
BB shoves him with his shoulder and he narrowly avoids falling into the fountain.
“This is ok,” Jez tells him, adopting a serious tone. “This is… more than ok, actually.”
“Good.” BB grins.
Jez tips his head to one side and attempts to look winning. “Is this the part where you kiss me again?”
BB considers this. “You know; I think it could be.”
His father sends one can of caviar to the school, FAO Jez. There’s no note, and when he tries to send an email it gets bounced back again, but hey; it’s a start.
Even though he still doesn’t like caviar, Jez carefully puts the can away, just so that he can remind himself that some battles really are worth fighting, and the consequences will sort themselves out in the end.